Could Tom Thibodeau mix up Knicks point guard rotation ahead of Hawks series?

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Elfrid Payton driving layup vs. Timberwolves
Elfrid Payton driving layup vs. Timberwolves

A few takeaways from Wednesday’s media availability ahead of the Knicks-Hawks first-round series:

NO LINEUP CHANGES?

Tom Thibodeau was asked on Wednesday about Elfrid Payton’s play of late. The question implied that Thibodeau might consider removing Payton from the starting lineup.

Thibodeau’s answer made it seem as if Payton will remain the starting point guard for Game 1 against the Hawks.

“I’ve said this all along: the depth of our team is one of our strengths. There are things that Elfrid provides for us that are a big asset to our team. His size, his defense, those are important factors,” Thibodeau said. “And then you look at it in totality – how does the team function. As is the case with most young players – there’s going to be ups and downs. You don’t have to shoot well to play well. Just go out there and give us what you can. And every game is different.

"The thing that I love about our team is if someone’s not going good, then another guy steps in and if he’s going good, everyone’s cheering for that guy. The most important thing is the team winning. That’s where I want the focus to lie.”

Payton averaged 17 minutes per game (six points on 44 percent shooting) in the final 20 games of the regular season. The Knicks were outscored by 41 points with Payton on the floor in that span, per NBA.com. They outscored opponents by 165 points when Payton wasn’t on the court in that stretch.

New York also went 16-4 in those 20 games. So it’s possible that the coaching staff doesn’t feel the need to change the lineup.

Feb 27, 2021; New York, New York, USA; Frank Ntilikina #11 of the New York Knicks celebrates his three point shot in the second quarter against the Indiana Pacers at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: POOL PHOTOS-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 27, 2021; New York, New York, USA; Frank Ntilikina #11 of the New York Knicks celebrates his three point shot in the second quarter against the Indiana Pacers at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: POOL PHOTOS-USA TODAY Sports

But there may be changes to the rotation. Thibodeau confirmed that he’s considering using Frank Ntilikina for defensive purposes against Atlanta and Trae Young.

“Frank has sort of been in that role as a defensive stopper. He adds great value to our team,” Thibodeau said. “What you guys don’t see is he and Kevin Knox and a bunch of other guys who aren’t in the rotation, how hard they work in practice. And we value the practice greatly. So they’re providing a lot to our team and whatever their strengths are, we’re going to try to take advantage of that.”

HAWKS HAVE ‘A PRETTY GOOD IDEA’ OF HOW TO DEFEND RANDLE

Hawks center Clint Capela implied that the Hawks are going to limit Julius Randle on offense and force the other Knicks to beat them. And he seemed confident in the Hawks’ approach against Randle, who set a franchise record for combined points, rebounds and assists per game this season.

“That’s kind of the perspective here,” Capela said of limiting Randle and letting other Knicks try to beat them, according to The Athletic’s Charles Kirschner. “We know it’s going to be hard, especially in those first four games. I’m not going to say it’s going to be perfect, but we have a pretty good idea of how to get to him.”

Randle averaged 37 points, 12.3 rebounds and 6.6 assists in three games against Atlanta this season. New York went 3-0 in those games. Randle said Wednesday that those games ‘don’t matter’ as he and the Knicks prepare for the playoffs.

Jan 4, 2021; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young (11) shoots against New York Knicks forward Julius Randle (30) during the second half at State Farm Arena. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 4, 2021; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young (11) shoots against New York Knicks forward Julius Randle (30) during the second half at State Farm Arena. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

“We got Game 1 coming up on Sunday. I just got to be prepared for whatever comes at me and (whatever) they throw my way. I’ll be prepared for it,” Randle said. “Whatever happens during the game, I got to make the right plays and be aggressive.”

The Hawks will have DeAndre Hunter back for the series. Hunter may defend Randle. If the Hawks go with traditional assignments, Capela will match up against Nerlens Noel.

Capela was the NBA’s leading rebounder this season.

“You have to just keep him off the glass. That’s where he does most of his damage at,” Noel said. “Limit his second-chance opportunities and second-chance points for his team. I’m readying day by day; making it a focal point doing drills, making sure my body is good and ready, staying in the weight room. I’m ready to take it as a big task for myself. I know if I do my job it will help us be more victorious. I’m locked in.”

Noel added that Thibodeau has given the Knicks two large booklets to prepare for the Hawks series.

“You know he’s ready for the challenge at hand,” Noel said. “…. We definitely have been locked in on that, studying their sets.”